The Ultimate Guide to Reading Colson Whitehead’s BooksIllustration by Josh D. Jackson Books Lists colson whitehead
Colson Whitehead is necessary reading, and there’s something for every reader to love in his bibliography. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author has tackled everything from the Underground Railroad to poker to zombie infestations, releasing nine captivating books over the past two decades. But no matter the topic, Whitehead always succeeds in two areas: writing enthralling prose and exploring relevant topics to contemporary American culture.
With the release of Whitehead’s ninth book, The Nickel Boys, this week, it’s the perfect time to dive into his work. Check out our guide below to find the perfect title for you.
Why You’ll Love It: Based on a real Florida reform school that abused children for 111 years, Whitehead’s compelling novel will stick with you long after the final page.
For Fans of: Historical fiction (Jim Crow era), coming-of-age stories and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Description from the Publisher: Abandoned by his parents but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood Curtis is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides “physical, intellectual and moral training” so the delinquent boys in their charge can become “honorable and honest men.”
In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and any boy who resists is likely to disappear “out back.” Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold onto Dr. King’s ringing assertion “Throw us in jail and we will still love you.” His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naïve and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. The tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades.
Why You’ll Love It: This Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning novel imagines a literal Underground Railroad, delivering a stunning saga about the horrors of slavery. (Believe us, you’ll want to read the book before the TV adaptation directed by Barry Jenkins is released.)
For Fans of: Historical fiction (pre-Civil War era), speculative fiction and powerful female protagonists.
Description from the Publisher: Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
The Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor; engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
Why You’ll Love It: Whether you’re obsessed with poker or have never played the game in your life, Whitehead’s brilliant prose makes this memoir a must-read.
For Fans of: Poker, memoirs and beef jerky (yes, seriously).
Description from the Publisher: A longtime neighborhood poker player, Whitehead was given a $10,000 stake and an assignment from the online magazine Grantland to see how far he could get in the World Series of Poker. After weeks of preparation that included repeated bus trips to glamorous Atlantic City and hiring a personal trainer to toughen him up for sitting at 12 hours a stretch, the author journeyed to the gaudy wonderland that is Las Vegas to try his luck in the multi-million-dollar tournament.
Hobbled by his mediocre playing skills and a lifelong condition known as “anhedonia” (the inability to experience pleasure), Whitehead did not win tens of millions of dollars. But he did chronicle his progress, both literal and existential, in this unbelievably funny, uncannily accurate social satire whose main target is the author himself.
Why You’ll Love It: Whitehead’s original take on the zombie novel offers a chilling read from cover to cover.
For Fans of: Post-apocalyptic horror and zombies.
Description from the Publisher: A pandemic has devastated the planet, sorting humanity into two types: the uninfected and the infected, the living and the living dead. Now the plague is receding, and Americans are busy rebuild¬ing civilization under orders from the provisional govern¬ment based in Buffalo. Their top mission: the resettlement of Manhattan. Armed forces have successfully reclaimed the island south of Canal Street—aka Zone One—but pockets of plague-ridden squatters remain. While the army has eliminated the most dangerous of the infected, teams of civilian volunteers are tasked with clearing out a more innocuous variety—the “malfunctioning” stragglers, who exist in a catatonic state, transfixed by their former lives.
Mark Spitz is a member of one of the civilian teams work¬ing in lower Manhattan. Alternating between flashbacks of Spitz’s desperate fight for survival during the worst of the outbreak and his present narrative, the novel unfolds over three surreal days, as it depicts the mundane mission of straggler removal, the rigors of Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder and the impossible job of coming to grips with the fallen world. And then things start to go wrong.
Why You’ll Love It: An utterly unique coming-of-age novel, Sag Harbor boasts an original protagonist that readers will love.
For Fans of: Coming-of-age stories and the ‘80s.
Description from the Publisher: Benji Cooper is one of the few black students at an elite prep school in Manhattan. But every summer, Benji escapes to the Hamptons, to Sag Harbor, where a small community of African American professionals have built a world of their own.
The summer of ’85 won’t be without its usual trials and tribulations, of course. There will be complicated new handshakes to fumble through and state-of-the-art profanity to master. Benji will be tested by contests big and small, by his misshapen haircut (which seems to have a will of its own), by the New Coke Tragedy and by his secret Lite FM addiction. But maybe, just maybe, this summer might be one for the ages.
Why You’ll Love It: A satirical novel tackling marketing and contemporary culture, Apex Hides the Hurt delivers the delicious small-town drama you didn’t know you needed in your life.
For Fans of: Satire and small-town drama.
Description from the Publisher: Apex Hides the Hurt’s protagonist is a nomenclature consultant. If you want just the right name for your new product, whether it be automobile or antidepressant, sneaker or spoon, he’s the man to get the job done. Apex is his crowning achievement, the multicultural bandage that has revolutionized the adhesive bandage industry. “Flesh-colored” be damned—no matter what your skin tone is—Apex will match it, or your money back.
After leaving his job (following a mysterious misfortune), his expertise is called upon by the town of Winthrop to rename their home. Once there, he meets the town council, who will try to sway his opinion over the coming days. Our expert must decide the outcome, with all its implications for the town’s future. Which name will he choose? Or perhaps he will devise his own? And what’s with his limp, anyway?
Why You’ll Love It: Whitehead successfully captures the essence of New York City in this nonfiction tome, gifting readers with a luminous portrait of the city from myriad angles.
For Fans of: New York City and essays.
Description from the Publisher: A masterful evocation of the city that never sleeps, The Colossus of New York captures the city’s inner and outer landscapes in a series of vignettes, meditations and personal memories. Whitehead conveys with almost uncanny immediacy the feelings and thoughts of longtime residents and of newcomers who dream of making it their home; of those who have conquered its challenges; and of those who struggle against its cruelties.
Switching from third person, to first person, to second person, Whitehead weaves individual voices into a jazzy musical composition that perfectly reflects the way we experience the city. There is a funny, knowing riff on what it feels like to arrive in New York for the first time; a lyrical meditation on how the city is transformed by an unexpected rain shower; and a wry look at the ferocious battle that is commuting. The plaintive notes of the lonely and dispossessed resound in one passage, while another captures those magical moments when the city seems to be talking directly to you, inviting you to become one with its rhythms.
Why You’ll Love It: Whitehead bridges the gap between the Industrial Age and the Digital Age, weaving John Henry’s mythology into an entertaining novel exploring ‘90s American culture.
For Fans of: John Henry and the ‘90s.
Description from the Publisher: J. Sutter is a black journalist who roams from one publicity event to another, abusing his expense account and mooching as much as possible. It is 1996, and an assignment for a travel website takes Sutter to West Virginia for the first annual “John Henry Days” festival, a celebration of a new U.S. postal stamp honoring John Henry.
According to legend, John Henry, a black laborer for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, was a man of superhuman strength and stamina. He proved his mettle in a contest with a steam drill, only to die of exhaustion moments after his triumph. But at the festival, the real story of John Henry emerges in graceful counterpoint to Sutter’s thoroughly modern adventure.
The Intuitionist (1999)
Why You’ll Love It: Whitehead’s humorous debut novel boasts a bizarre premise—the protagonist can intuit if something is wrong with an elevator—that evolves into a meaningful tale exploring racism and humanity.
For Fans of: Speculative fiction, intrigue and talented female protagonists.
Description from the Publisher: It is a time of calamity in a major metropolitan city’s Department of Elevator Inspectors, and Lila Mae Watson, the first black female elevator inspector in the history of the department, is at the center of it. There are two warring factions within the department: the Empiricists, who work by the book and dutifully check for striations on the winch cable and such; and the Intuitionists, who are simply able to enter the elevator cab in question, meditate and intuit any defects.
Lila Mae is an Intuitionist and has the highest accuracy rate in the entire department. But when an elevator in a new city building goes into total freefall on Lila Mae’s watch, chaos ensues. And the sudden appearance of excerpts from the lost notebooks of Intuitionism’s founder, James Fulton, adds to the stir. When Lila Mae goes underground to investigate the crash, she becomes involved in the search for the portions of the notebooks that are still missing and uncovers a secret that will change her life forever.
Josh D. Jackson illustrated the header image, and you can check out more of his work here.